Once upon a time conservatism was about social stability, and dead set against making dramatic social or governmental changes based on philosophical theories or the whims of politicians. Edmund Burke, the intellectual father of conservatism, created his ideology after watching the horrors of the French Revolution. He said that social and cultural institutions are the repository of the collected wisdom of humanity, and they shouldnt be changed lightly. He also said that of all the justifications for change, political theory is among the most dangerous. He saw the disastrous attempts by French revolutionaries to put the political theories of the French philosophersRousseau, Diderot, Voltaire, et alinto action. This, he said, was the wrong way to take action that affected the lives of millions of people. Burke didnt oppose change, but he though it should be gradual, evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. He also didnt oppose political liberty he was an early and vociferous advocate of American independence, and a strong supporter of Irish independencebut he didnt think that the way to achieve political liberty was to overthrowing the existing order and replace it with the untested theories of political philosophers.
In the last few weeks we have had two purely speculative ideas thrust into the political debate. As his presidential campaign was tanking, and as he attempted to dodge questions about how he would balance the budget at the same time as cutting taxes, Mitt Romney said that he would make up the revenue shortfall by limiting deductions for the wealthy. The idea was widely panned by most reputable economists, who laid out mathematically that there was not enough money in those deductions to make up for the other planned cuts. The idea should have died a quick death. But then, as Republicans scrambled for a way to make up the massive revenue shortfalls in their budget proposals to avert the so called fiscal cliff, they grasped Romneys silly idea, and it became the centerpiece of their plan. Again serious economists said that limiting, or even totally eliminating, deductions for high earners would simply not provide the revenue that Republicans were claiming. But they liked the theory, the untested political idea presented on a political whim, and didnt want to address the political and economic reality.
And then, in the aftermath of the tragic school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, the chief spokesman for the NRA suggested that there should be an armed guard at every school in America. Within a few days Republican politicians were parroting this line, and some state politicians were even working on legislation to train teachers or school principles to be able to carry a weapon in school. Never mind that this too was an entirely untested idea splashed into the political debate as a rhetorical point by a partisan hack.
Both are exactly the type of untested theories that Burke warned us against. And both were presented by people who call themselves conservative. Burke must be rolling in his grave.